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Diet Can Fight Yeast Infections

January 21, 2002|AMANDA URSELL

Although premenstrual syndrome and menopause are often the topics of casual conversation among women, yeast infections remain somehow out of bounds. Yet the fact that dietary changes may help conquer the problem surely warrants discussion.

The infections, also known as vaginal thrush, are caused by a normally harmless yeast called Candida albicans. The organism resides in moist, warm areas of the body, such as the mouth and vagina, and can sometimes begin to grow out of control.

Yeast infections can be hard to identify because they are sometimes confused with vaginosis (caused by bacteria) or a sexually transmitted disease. But if intense itching, inflammation, redness in the external genital area and a white vaginal discharge are the symptoms, then chances are a yeast infection is the culprit.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no point in adopting a yeast-free diet. The yeast used to make bread rise is quite different from that responsible for yeast infections.

What can make a difference, however, is increasing your intake of foods that increase the amount of "friendly" bacteria in the part of the large intestine called the colon. Known as probiotic bacteria, they help boost the immune system--thus helping the body fight infection by Candida--and appear to keep the pH level of the vagina lower, which discourages yeast growth.

Look for yogurts and yogurt drinks containing acidophilus or bifidus cultures or try probiotic supplements available in health stores.

Whichever form is chosen, daily consumption is recommended for at least six months if yeast infections are chronic, because when intakes drop, so do the colon's levels of probiotic bacteria.

Fructo-oligosaccharide, an indigestible form of carbohydrate, may also help. Found in highest amounts in onions, chicory, artichokes, garlic, bananas and the herb burdock, this substance makes its way to the colon, where it acts as a food source for probiotic bacteria, enabling them to multiply and grow. Known as FOS or prebiotics, fructo-oligosaccharide is available in supplement form.

Vitamin C is also a must, because in addition to being an immune-system booster, it appears to actually inhibit the growth of yeast. Citrus fruits and juices, papaya, berries, peppers and potatoes are all good sources.

Overgrowth of Candida albicans is sparked by a disturbance of the normal balance of yeast or the pH level of the vagina. This can be caused by something as simple as tight jeans and nylon underwear, which restrict air circulation. In such cases, self-treatment with over-the-counter creams may be helpful.

Other triggers include stress and a lack of sleep, which lower the immune system; a course of antibiotics, which may disturb the colon's balance of good and bad bacteria; and diabetes or pregnancy, which can affect the body's hormonal balances and pH level. If the infection was caused by one of these factors, a doctor may need to prescribe an oral anti-fungal drug.

With yeast infections, the saying "forewarned is forearmed" has never been truer. By reducing risk factors--and making nutritional changes--you can lower the chance of an outbreak and possibly prevent a yeast infection from becoming an uncomfortable and debilitating chronic condition.


Amanda Ursell, a dietitian and nutritionist, is a London-based freelance journalist. Her column appears twice a month. She can be reached at

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